Life can be scary. You and I may not have to face off against humongous monsters that gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible claws, but we cope with loneliness. We lose friends. We get angry. And all that happens before we reach the fourth grade.
Where the Wild Things Are knows this. Director Spike Jonze outdoes himself with his latest: the best scenes are poignant and intimate without sacrificing Jonze’s quirky style of filmmaking or becoming uncomfortably voyeuristic. Karen O’s splendid score ebbs and flows in unison with the characters’ oscillating emotions. But ultimately, the film succeeds because Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers don’t stray from the their source material.
Originally published in 1963, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is about a boy named Max, who—with the help of an active imagination and a wolf suit—makes mischief, gets punished, travels to the island of the wild things where he rules as king, misses his family and returns home to find dinner waiting for him. Initially banned for its dark content, today Sendak’s book is widely acknowledged as a classic children’s story.
Thankfully, Jonze and Eggers worked within Sendak’s original framework to create the rarest of rarities in the children’s film genre—an honest depiction of what it’s like to be a kid. Where the Wild Things Are isn’t better than the book, and nobody should expect it to be, but it somehow manages to turn ten sentences into a captivating 94 minutes.
Max (Max Records) now has a teenage sister named Claire (Pepita Emmerichs), who distances herself from the family with her gloomy attitude, and a divorced mother (Catherine Keener) who struggles to support her family financially. The wild things—menacing creatures in the book—are given names like Ira (Forest Whitaker) and Douglas (Chris Cooper), as well as distinct personalities. Carol (James Gandolfini), KW (Lauren Ambrose), and Alexander (Paul Dano) stand out not as wild things, but as characters who struggle with the concepts of friendship and abandonment. Where the Wild Things Are is an entirely realistic film—an odd thing to say for something that involves hairy, horned beasts, but it’s true.
In between wild rumpuses and sleeping in piles and dirt clod fights and whatnot, a child’s life can be confusing. Like Max in his sailboat, a young kid can be left adrift between his family and his imagination—alone, but not necessarily afraid. It’s alright to be afraid of wild things—at least before they crown you king. Until then, put on your wolf suit, howl your loudest howl, and look forward to a warm dinner when you get home—maybe life isn’t so scary after all.